The Three Universal Dimensions of Executive Presence (EP)
By Courtney Jackson, Research Associate and Project Coordinator, The Caleb Consulting Group
Executive Presence (EP), as Sylvia Ann Hewlett puts it, “is a precondition of success”, and is made up of three not so secret, ingredients necessary for achieving power and having your voice heard, all while still maintaining respect. In her book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Hewlett describes these three dimensions:
- Gravitas – (the most critical) confidence, decisiveness, integrity, and vision
- Communication – assertiveness, command of a room, speaking skills
- Appearance – polish, groomed, and styles that fit expectations of the position
The reality is, though, EP is made up of a package deal. It simply cannot exist without all three of the aspects, gravitas, communication, and appearance. Take baking a cake for instance. Cutting corners in the recipe is virtually not an option. Without the baking soda, your cake will lack stability, and without the sugar, your cake will taste bitter. The same goes for the components of EP. Without all three of the ‘ingredients’, you cannot achieve strong Executive Presence. Whether you are the most intelligent employee at your firm, or the most talented violin player in your orchestra, you simply cannot get by if you do not possess the communication skills to be heard by others, or if you are not freshly groomed to perform.
Likewise, when making your cake, you will typically add a few cups of sugar in the mix with only one teaspoon of baking powder. You do not waste your time questioning why there is so much more sugar in the mix than there is baking powder, because you recognize that the varying amounts of each ingredient are what make up the perfect cake. This idea can also be related to EP, as the three components vary in influence, where gravitas is the sugar, having the greatest amount of influence, while communication and appearance follow in lesser amounts, and can be likened to salt or baking powder.
Having gravitas is believed to be the most critical of the three components when striving for EP. Your actions tower over how you communicate and how you appear. Gravitas is characterized and made up of various elements such as showing emotional intelligence, having confidence, being dependable, possessing integrity, and remaining smart and calm under pressure. My favorite is the latter, as Bob Dudley, former CEO of BP, put it “I don’t believe I’ve ever been able to judge or trust a person unless I can see what they’re like under fire.” Think about someone you admire, whether it be in the business sector, a political leader, or someone in your neighborhood. Do you have them in mind? Great. Now think of the reasons you admire them. Do they act according to any of these components of gravitas? Think of a time when they acted well under pressure, or truly imagine how they would respond in a stressful situation. If you admire them, you can likely think of a time when they have accomplished this. One’s ability to act calm and respond well in a stressful situation not only shows their confidence and collectivism, but it also builds reliability and trust in your abilities for those around you.
The next, and believed to be second most important component, communication, can be thought of as not what you are saying, but how you are saying it. In the twenty-first century, people are communicating wherever they go. Whether it be a post on Facebook, a text to a family member, a presentation to an entire lecture hall, or simply a conversation over coffee, people are always communicating. Moreover, how you say something, isn’t simply the tone of your voice. You are speaking with your body language, with your eyes, and with your attitude. Your posture, and maintaining of eye contact are also important aspects of communication, unless you want to translate the wrong idea to your peers or colleagues. In everyday life, most of these communication skills are natural, and have been learned over the course of your life. Some are muscle memory. But today more than ever, what we are communicating can be misinterpreted because of how we communicate them. And EP demands superior communication skills that leave no room for misinterpretation. One’s “ability to command a room,” “ability to read a room,” and sense of assertiveness while still being humorous, are important qualities of a good communicator.
Only 5% of the college-educated professionals and senior executives in a survey identified appearance as being overbearingly influential for EP in comparison to the other two components. While it may not be believed to be the most influential overall, the statistic is deceiving. Appearance is absolutely critical when making an impression. It is a lens through which those you are trying to influence, can even see your gravitas or communication. Imagine you are attending a nationwide conference, to hear from your favorite researcher. You and the audience clap for him as he walks onto stage only to recognize he is ungroomed. His shirt is half untucked, his hair is a mess. He looks as if he hasn’t showered in days, yet he approaches the stage with confidence. You are suddenly confused and unimpressed. He is an excellent speaker, but you and those around cannot hear a word he says because you are so ill-impressed with his display. Remember, this is someone you have looked up to your entire career, but in the moment he is speaking, all of his credibility has washed down the drain because you cannot believe this lack respect. Very few people would be able to stay focused in an instance such as this. The physical appearance being discussed should not be mistaken as one’s naturally born physical traits, but rather grooming. It is more about the features that are in the individual’s control.
Without all of the ingredients and the appropriate amounts necessary from the recipe, a cake is not a cake. Likewise, without gravitas, good communication skills, and appropriate appearance, Executive Presence cannot exist. And, at the end of the day, leadership is about influence. Developing your EP will grow your influence.
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